Archive for the ‘Europe 2016’ Category

Dank u wel, merci, gracias!

27 June 2016

Last days in Groningen in the north of The Netherlands.

Thanks to our readers and followers – until next time!

Last day in Barcelona

23 June 2016

The plan yesterday was to travel by Metro to the Sagrada Familia to see the interior but, because of possible strikes affecting the morning peak hour, we cycled across the city again. It doesn’t look far on the map but it’s a good 30 minutes in heavy traffic with many intersections to cross and traffic light interpretations needed.

The crowds at Sagrada Familia are deftly handled with a security check required and tickets to be scanned. The entry is at the Gothic end where turtles bear the weight of the two columns at either side of the doorway. They appear to be patiently accepting their responsibility.

The cathedral inside is beautiful with huge columns branching out as they reach up. Its contemporary design makes it unlike any other.

The bike boxes awaited so after returning to enjoy Andreu’s tortilla de patatas for lunch, made to his mother’s recipe, we did the packing.

Barcelona has medium rise buildings everywhere making it is easy to lose your sense of direction with no visible landmarks. When viewed from above, it reveals its famous locations that cannot be seen at street level but gives no sense of the leafy shady tree-lined streets that make the city so pleasant. There is a veritable army of street cleaners at work every day in smart two-tone lime green uniforms. They do a great job. There are many dogs (Ian has been on beagle watch) but dog poo is not a problem. Large plastic rubbish and recycling bins are located in the streets for residential refuse.

Barcelona Bicing (city bikes) are available everywhere and are well used. We have seen many Bromptons and other folding bikes. People carry children on bike seats, sometimes front and back. We saw a parent and child riding on a battery-powered small wheel scooter. Hands-free battery-powered one wheelers are good for people who like to smoke while commuting. We took the Metro a couple of times and had less than a minute to wait for our train.

Now we are at Barcelona airport where our flight to Amsterdam has been delayed due to a mouvement social in France – probably a continuation of the one mentioned in a previous post.

Couch surfing in the suburbs

21 June 2016

We have relocated to the suburbs of Barcelona for the last couple of nights to stay with Andreu and Marina who we hosted in Adelaide earlier this year. They have both recently returned to Spain after living in South America for some time. They are also competitive scrabble players. Andreu is going to treat us to his best Catalan dishes over the next two evenings!

We took the Metro to the bike shop to collect the boxes so that bike dismantling and packing can occur tomorrow. Our helmets went into the bin this morning after being rendered useless by the bike thieves, so, in full compliance with Spanish law, we are riding around bareheaded.

A swim at the Piscina Municipal de Montjuïc was proposed as a post-siesta activity. This is a public pool located just below the Castell de Montjuïc. A water polo carnival was in progress, so swimming was not possible, but we enjoyed the spectacular view across the city.

Heavy traffic was choking up tunnels and highways as we returned. In general we have found Barcelona to be a good cycling city with many separate cycle lanes, pedestrian crossings everywhere and a better attitude from motorists than we are accustomed to in Adelaide.

Now we are watching the soccer – Spain v Croatia. Score so far 1-1.

The bullrings of Barcelona

20 June 2016

Yesterday afternoon we left our bikes locked to parking rails in the street for a few hours. On returning mid-evening it was clear that a serious attempt at theft had been made as there was a T-shaped bar for twisting and wrenching open a cable lock left in place and the bikes were suspended off the ground. Maybe we or someone else interrupted the operation, but it failed and no harm was done to the bicycles. The lock is now a bit distorted but quite functional. We disposed of the lock-wrecking tool this morning!


We rode up to the summit of Mount Tibidabo, the location of the Expiatory Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and an amusement park overlooking Barcelona. It is a popular route for cyclists, judging from the lycra-clad blokes who arrived on their training rides. On the way down we stopped at the petrol station that had a bike-wash with high pressure hoses to clean up the bikes.

The next stop was the Plaza de Toros Monumental, built in 1914, an Art-Nouveau building, the last active bullring in Catalonia that closed only 5 years ago in 2011 when bullfighting was banned by the Parliament of Catalonia. It features three giant eggs – no mystery where Salvador Dali got his egg idea from! Also interesting were the ticket entrances labelled Sombra and Sol – you can choose to sit in the shade (more expensive) or the sun. This bullring is now little used except for the occasional rock concert. There is another one that we have visited, Arenas de Barcelona, that has been converted into a shopping centre.

Not far from La Monumental is Plaça de les Glòries Catalanes –  it sounded impressive so we went there. It is a huge area, contemporary in style with the Torre Agbar (Barcelona’s gherkin) a major feature. We discovered here that Barcelona has a tram network as well as the metro, buses and the Barcelona Bicing city bike system. We then went on to the Parc de la Ciutadella and Arc de Triomf – note the bats featured on the stonework.

This evening was spent walking and enjoying the social atmosphere of the streets that are full of people, families, children playing – the kind of activities that are generally done in private space in Australian cities and suburbs. When you don’t have your own backyard, the street is the place to meet!



Gaudi, Gaudier, Gaudiest

19 June 2016

Our early expedition this morning began with a small interaction with the Guàrdia Urbana. We were riding the wrong way along a narrow one-way street with the sun directly in our eyes and hopping on to the footpath as necessary when a car approached. One car that approached was the Guàrdia Urbana, at which point I was on the footpath and Ian was on the road. He got spoken to in Spanish while the offsider got on the radio to call in reinforcements to wrestle Ian to the ground and pummel him. Luckily it didn’t actually get to that stage and we are still at liberty.

Today we have explored the works of Gaudi, starting with notable buildings and then progressing up the hill to Parc Guell. Tip: go early to this location, especially if you want to go to the Monumental Zone for which you must pay and may be required to wait for admittance. Another tip: do not throw away any broken tiles and crockery as they can be used to enhance your home and garden with mosaic decorations and installations.

Parc Guell is at about 200m elevation and gives a great view of the city. It is a tourist hotspot and was already well populated with visitors soon after 9am. After viewing everything we went on to Barcelona tourist hotspot #1 – the Sagrada Familia. There appears to have been significant building progress in recent years with some obviously new sections now complete. Three cranes remain in place though and the work continues.

I have resolved my curiosity about the requirement to wear a cycling helmet in Spain. The Spanish helmet law came into effect from 23 January 2004. It applies to bicycle riders of all ages. However it does not apply: to cyclists riding in towns and cities; during periods of extreme heat; when riding up steep hills; or to professional cyclists. Sounds suitably flexible!

Illegal street vendors in Barcelona are numerous, selling selfie sticks, handbags, sunglasses and football shirts. These goods are displayed on the ground on a sheet with strings attached to all corners for the vendor to make a quick get-away if the police approach.

We saw a lone protestor against mass tourism, decrying the impact of so many people on the city. Along with tour groups and touristic buses, there are hen and buck parties and drinking groups, making Barcelona a party town where a Big Night Out doesn’t end until halfway through the next day.


18 June 2016


We arrived in Barcelona yesterday after riding along the coast from Calella to Matalo. Here we stopped for a swim which was refreshing, but the sand is like builders sand – grey and gritty – and the beach has a very steep drop off into the water. As noted before, Australian beaches can’t be beat!

Approaching major cities by bike is usually awful. Our riding conditions were deteriorating with no alternative to the highway following the coast except the train, so we got on and rode the rails into Barcelona Sants, the main station. We are now comfortably installed in a hotel in the Raval district.

The first task was to find a bike shop that can provide bike boxes for our flight to Amsterdam. This search took us to the hipster area of Poble-Sec where the bike shops were trendy but had no boxes. We were sent to a bike shop that is also a bar in a neighbouring area and have now secured two boxes to be collected on Tuesday.

This morning we started early to visit the Mirador de Colom (monument to Columbus), La Rambla (deserted in contrast to crowds of thousands last night), La Boqueria food market and some public art works of Joan Miro. The best part of the day was winding our way up the hill to the huge ornate Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, then further up to the site of the 1992 Olympic Games, and past the Botanic Gardens to the Montjuïc Castle from which there is a fantastic view across the city in one direction and to the Mediterranean in the other. This castle has a long history with many unpleasant episodes, particularly in relation to the Civil War. Now the artillery guns are decorated with flowers.


We reach the Costa Brava

16 June 2016

A via verde (greenway) took us out of Girona into flat farmland as far as Cassa de la Selva where we stopped to check out the market. We then followed roads with the help and hindrance of Garmin.

When cycling there are several things to be avoided including backtracking, losing or gaining altitude unnecessarily and being denied access to a convenient road. We reached a dead end at one point and were faced with the possibility of having to turn back. Garmin then helped by directing us through an industrial car park on to a dirt road through a cork oak forest. Within a short time this road ended and we were obliged to climb a fence to get back on track.

Our route overall was a mixture of rural, industrial and urban. We had the distinctive peak of El Far overlooking us from the west, lots of urban fringe warehouses, a motorway and highways to get over or under and small towns of various interest.

A narrow unsealed road eventually brought us over a small pass and we had our first view of the Mediterranean. The remaining kilometres were not pleasant as they were on a highway with heavy traffic, head wind and roadside sex workers. We reached the coast at Malgrat de Mer where tourist hotels and market gardens sit side by side.

We are staying at Calella where we have swum in the sea and watched a street procession of Geganters i Grallers – giant puppets with a band of Catalan oboists.


15 June 2016

Figueras, the birthplace of Salvador Dalí and location of the Dalí Museum, is 30 minutes by train from Girona, so we headed up there today for some surrealism.

The building is near the centre of the town, adjacent to the church of Sant Pere de Figueres, deep red in colour and decorated with giant eggs and gold figures.

Our attempts to enter started in the appropriate way when we approached a ticket office and were told it was not the right ticket office. We then went in via a revolving door and revolved right out again as it was the wrong door. Then we walked a little further and joined the correct queue. Tip: go early to the Dalí Museum – the queue was much longer when we came out.

Salvador was prolific in his artistic output which is funny, weird, disturbing and brilliant as we already know. We had the feeling that, as part of the touristic throng paying homage and snapping photos, we were part of a posthumous joke. We played along nevertheless and enjoyed the experience.

In the evening we walked along the old city walls of Girona which give fine views of the city and the mountains to the west.

In both Girona and Figueras we have seen bomb shelters that remain from the Spanish civil war in the 1930s.

Down to Girona

14 June 2016

We took a chance and didn’t arrange for breakfast from the hotel. In the morning we let ourselves out, stopped at a nearby bakery for a couple of pastries and a mini baguette and found the Cafe Dinamic within a few hundred metres. CD’s barrista justified the name and served some pretty good coffees so our gamble paid off nicely.

We left Ripoll climbing east towards the Coll de Canes (1120m) and the Coll de Coubet (1010m) up a valley of interlocking spurs disappearing into the mist. The road climbed gently and steadily winding towards the pass. The lower slopes had ancient terraces yielding to thick oak and conifer forests above. Cow bells were peeling all the way. This might have been the most glorious road we’ve cycled.

We had little traffic but were overtaken by three French cyclists making a quick loop into Spain to visit Salvador Dali country and travelling lighter and faster than us. From  the Coll de Canes (dogs) our road swept down to Olot. (The Coll de Coubet was only a pass if you took another road at the intersection there.) Despite the thrill of the descent we felt a pang and must say goodbye to the Pyrenees that we are leaving.

From Olot we took the rail trail all the way to Girona. The trail stretches 160km south but 40km served us well on this trip. It is unsealed with improvised connections at times but is well sign posted and almost all downhill for us. As we lose altitude the cycling is easy but it’s a little dispiriting to be leaving the mountains so soon. A head wind, some charmless industrial sites and the ragged, modern outskirts of Girona add to our heavy hearts.

Our first contact with Girona was not encouraging as we struggled to find the centre of town. Likewise our arrival at our pensione. But after refreshment, a rest, a thunderstorm and contact with the grandmotherly hostess we were reassured and an evening walk through the medieval streets was enchanting.

The restaurants here are schmick – each one a work of art. Dinner is going to be expensive. But no, prices are reasonable – much lower than in France. We had our first paella (pronounced paya) and it was good.

Collada de Toses

13 June 2016

Puigcerda is located in a stunning setting in a wide valley with the French Pyrenees to the north and the Spanish to the south. It is close to many ski resorts and has lots of expensive hotels and tourist accommodation. We stayed in a small family-run hotel with a great view of the mountains.

Our route today involved a 25km climb to reach Collada de Toses at 1790m followed by a 35km descent to Ripoll at 700m. The scenery was spectacular with mountains on all sides, yellow gorse in flower, deciduous and pine forests, streams and roadside fountains. We passed a herd of cows of many colours with clanging bells and pointy horns.

Another road took most of the traffic so we only had to share ours with a few motorcyclists and bike riders. The gradient was moderate so steady work on the pedals got us there without too much sweat. At Collada de Toses there is a massive new hotel, presumably catering for the ski season, currently closed for the summer and therefore not serving coffee. But no problem as in a short time we were in Ribes de Freser and found cafes con leche there.

A few more kilometres down the hill brought us to Ripoll, at the confluence of the rivers Freser and Ter. The Freser provides power for several factories through roadside mill races that are also plundered with siphons by opportunistic vegetable gardeners for their plots. Ripoll has many narrow streets and places where people gather and children play. The flag of the Catalan independence movement flies from many balconies.

We are trying to acquire some basic vocabulary and improve our understanding of when food can be obtained. However both lunch and dinner were had so we’re doing ok.

Hola España

12 June 2016

After breakfast we had a short, slightly wayward walk in the forest to get a last view of Ax-les-Thermes and then spent the rest of the morning lazing waiting for the train. When we got to the station we found that, due to the mouvement social (aka strike), the train had been cancelled. There was a bus a couple of hours later that could take us to Puigcerdà but would it take our bikes? The railway staff member locking the station as he left confirmed our interpretation of the situation but would offer no opinion on this question.

When the bus arrived the driver didn’t care. If we could fit our bikes into the underfloor cargo bins it was OK by him. We could and off we sped to Spain.

The traffic was as heavy as expected and with no shoulder to the road we were glad we weren’t cycling. The valley was spectacular and then the road ducked into a 5 km tunnel and emerged on the other side of the watershed and dropped down to Latour de Carol – the last town in France. A few  kilometres of downhill riding took us to Spain and Puigcerdà so our legs are well rested.

The landscape has opened out. The mountains are taller and the valleys wider. The grand scale of the scenery is stunning. Puigcerdà sits on top of a hill with views across the valley to snow-streaked mountains all around. We managed to find some food before 10pm!


Le fromage de la France

12 June 2016

Before we leave France some brief, unscholarly reflections on one of France’s greatest passions: cheese. Charles de Gaulle is quoted complaining of the difficulties of governing a country with 246 varieties of cheese. I wonder how he came up with that number. It may be approximate the number of identifiable types of cheese manufactured at an industrial scale but cheese production in rural France seems a much more fine-grained activity and the results extraordinarily diverse.

At the tiny Saturday market in Ax-les-Thermes yesterday there where 3-4 traders selling cheese. Each had more than a dozen varieties. Most were unlabelled, unwrapped and seemingly unique. Before they are cut many of the wheels (of various sizes and shapes) don’t really look like food at all. They are covered in mouldy rind that might be white, brown, grey, red or green. They might be covered in seeds, spices or ash. They might be wrapped in leaves or strips of bark.

Once cut the interior might be pale yellow, ivory or white. It might be crumbly, creamy, smooth or bubbly. It might be shot through with mould or ash. The taste might be sharp or mild. It might be pungent or unimposing.

A lot of the cheese is made from raw milk and seems very much alive. The cows, sheep or goats might do half the job by making the milk but the microbiology seems to be where much of the diversity arises. While I like Bega cheddar, Australian cheese seems very sterile (literally) by comparison. A French cheese platter looks very earthy with many unusual tastes and surprises.

It’s also worth noting the food handling is much more casual in Europe. Pieces of cheese, bread, pastries or meats might all be well-handled as they are being weighed and wrapped. Herd immunity must be quite strong.


A Rest Day in Ax

11 June 2016


We spent the day in Ax-les-Thermes resting, washing, shopping, bathing, planning, strolling and eating.

Our host David has a pretty cool job. He is the quality manager at the local ski resort. At first glance that might sound a little dry but he commutes to work on the ski fields gondola and has flexible hours that leaves him plenty of snow-boarding time in winter and accumulated leave to take in summer. He guided us to an inexpensive but excellent Spanish restaurant for a delicious foretaste of Spain. We leave France tomorrow after a relaxing day here. We have enjoyed our time here and feel a little unprepared for a new country and a new language.

It turns our that while Ax-les-Thermes is quite a scenic and interesting destination it’s not a very good place to be if you’re trying to cycle to Spain. Unless we ride back over yesterday’s col and climb even further to Font Romeu, the only viable option is to take the main road to Puigcerdà in Spain. It’s quite a climb but that’s not the problem. The narrow road also carries heavy traffic of tourist coaches and French tax-avoiders driving to Andorra for their cheap cigarettes and wine. Understandably, the French government hasn’t spent too much improving the road to aid them.

While other cyclists have endured the ride to Puigcerdà we have decided to take the train instead (once a day at the moment due to the strikes). The tickets for the one hour trip were a steal at €2.50 each (bikes are free).

Our lazy morning started with a visit to the market followed by a session taking the waters for free in one of several public, ankle-deep baths around town. This seems a very congenial, sociable and slightly smelly way of improving almost every aspect of one’s health according to the brochures. For dinner, we cooked soup and ate it with fresh rye (seigle) bread .

Ax-les-Thermes via the Col de Pailhère

10 June 2016

The Hôtel Axat put on quite a good spread for breakfast. We needed it. We couldn’t pay by credit card but they would’ve taken a cheque!

Our route started climbing immediately but very gently next to the Aude River through the spectacular Gorges of St George’s. The lower opening of the gorge is a massive sword slash through a huge rock wall. The road overhangs the river briefly and is cut into the base of the cliff under apparently stable overhanging rocks.

The serious climbing started near Chateau d’Usson from where we had 1216 metres to scale over 15 km but never more than 10%.

There were several zigzag sections and the mountain scenery was spectacular as the road wound through several villages towards the peaks at the head of the valley. We rode with the sound of the lively river nearby joined by the jangling of cow bells as we reached the upper pastures. Cows gave way to goats and sheep on the highest slopes where they grazed between large patches of snow.

The Tour de France has passed this way several times in recent decades. Near the top the road was painted with encouraging messages and the names of famous riders including Alberto Contador, Thomas Voeckler and Jens Voigt. I remember watching (on TV) the TdF climb this col in 2007. On that stage they started near Montagne Noir north of Carcassonne and after reaching Ax-les-Thermes via this col had to continue to the top of a similar climb at Plateau de Beille. One col per day is plenty for us. In fact, I’m not keen to do one tomorrow.

There is a refuge at the saddle. It had a locked but broken door. The inside was disgusting with piles of rubbish. We were reminded of our day on the Transfăgărășan Highway in Romania in 2010.

As we reached the summit a nearby thunder storm brought ground level cloud and light rain so we did not tarry. We rugged up and headed down – scarcely pushing the pedals as we rolled to Ax-les-Thermes.

Into the Pyrenees

9 June 2016

Our generous Couchsurfing host Yves cooked us muesli for breakfast (we would call it porridge) and we left early to beat the Carcassonne rush hour. We enjoyed our final stretch along the Canal du Midi (rather more care-worn at this western end from our limited observation) before heading south.

We dodged the traffic by riding via Saint-Hilaire but copped two small cols to climb. We stopped for coffee in the Limoux main square where a group of old codgers with natty bicycle panniers gradually convened. After that we were resigned to sharing with the traffic for about 25 km up the Aude valley to Quillan. However at Esperaza we spotted a side road crossing the river seemingly offering a better option. Despite discouraging Route Barree signs and Garmin’s insistent pleas to turn back we persisted and encountered no more resistance than a mere red boom blocking the road for motor vehicles – nothing to us unruly cyclists. We happily rode the last half of the Limoux-Quillan leg on a quiet road, traffic free.

A long lunch break (with nap at the table for Rosalie) was followed by a short ride up a spectacular gorge (défilé de la Pierre-Lys) through a tunnel and under over-hanging rocks to Axat. Just before we arrived a French Air Force Dassault Rafale screamed overhead below the ridgetops – they must have heard we were coming.

Axat is a beautiful mountain village with high peaks all around and a lively stream flowing through the middle. It’s exciting to be in the Pyrenees at last with some big climbs to face over the next few days. A big dinner and a good night’s sleep is in order.

Over the Black Mountain

8 June 2016

We tried but failed to get le petit dejeuner in Castres and had to be satisfied with coffee augmented by pain au raisin and pain au chocolat. Then it was along the road and up the hill, a long gentle climb through the forest up the Montagne Noire that lies between Castres and Carcassonne. At the top, the Col de Fontbruno at 880m, we met a group of cyclists dressed in various luminescent colours who greeted us and took our photo.

As we began the long descent we had our first sighting of the Pyrenees, towering in the distance with snow on top. Today’s climb was a good warm up for what lies ahead.

The weather on the southern side of the mountain is warmer and the landscape more Mediterranean with vines, olive trees, pines and cypress trees. As we approached Carcassonne it was quite hot. After cold drinks and lunch it was time for siesta in the deep shade by the river with the citadel above.

By 5pm we had revived enough for a brief touristic effort so we pedalled up to an entrance and entered. The citadel is best viewed from without as inside it is full of tourist shops and cafes. The church has given the stone masons of the past the chance for creativity with the inclusion of carved heads, each one unique, high on the walls. One with big ears was obviously Tony Abbott with Margaret Thatcher next to him.

Our home for tonight is in an old farmhouse a few km out of the town, surrounded by vines and fruit trees, with Couchsurfing host Yves. We took an evening walk through the fields and could see the citadel lit up on the skyline, a beautiful sight.

Path of the Rights of Man

7 June 2016

We planned to follow this rail trail today from Albi to Castres and, calooh callay, we found it without difficulty (or any good online directions) leaving the D71 just south of Puygouzon. We think that the Chemin des Droits de l’Homme owes more to Thomas Paine than Cory Bernardi. It served us well today.

With negligible grades we spun along through green hilly farmland and oak and beech forests with occasional very fine rain that barely dampened us. The path is unsealed but well-groomed with a firm dolomite surface and took us all the way into Castres.

We paused for a pedestrian tour of the hill town of Lautrec which must have been a strong contender with Cordes-sur-Ciel as one of France’s most beautiful towns but with less commerce and fewer tourists.

Walking through Lautrec’s sinuous streets we saw an old windmill, several artisanal pastel (woad) dyeing studios and many half-timbered houses. In clear weather the Pyrenees would have been visible stretching along the southern horizon.

We failed to find an open cafe in Lautrec so back on the bikes and off to Castres. After the requisite coffee (“deux creme s’il vous plait” is all you really need to say) I took my bike to a bike shop for a much needed headset adjustment before the fast Pyreneean descents that we expect in the coming days.

Albi Cathedral

6 June 2016

We visited Albi Cathedral, a monumental red brick building, most impressive with its stark exterior and highly decorated interior featuring a vivid scene of heaven and hell and many trompe d’oeil designs. There is a peregrine falcon’s nest high on one of the towers that you can observe via webcam. We saw one of the falcons swooping around in the dark the other night.

Albi is also proud of being the birthplace of Toulouse Lautrec and La Perouse and there is a museum for each of them.

We have greatly enjoyed the hospitality of Bettina and Dan in their old farmhouse home on the edge of town.


5 June 2016

Our hosts, Dan and Bettina, took us to visit Cordes-sur-Ciel, a small hilltop village about 25km from Albi. It has steeply winding streets lined with houses and shops. At the top there is a covered market, church, many restaurants and art galleries.

In 2014 a French TV program declared it to be the best village in France. It is now a tourist attraction, but Bettina says that there are a number of other similar villages in the area and it is possible to do a walking tour over several days between them.

We ate aligot (mashed potato with cheese) with Toulouse sausage for lunch. One building had many grotesques (fanciful creatures and chimera) – the stone masons obviously had fun creating them.

A long road to woad city

4 June 2016

There was a huge children’s rugby carnival underway in Montauban as we left this morning. We had hoped to pick up a velo route along the Tarn River from Saint-Sulpice-La-Pointe so took an indirect route on quiet roads through rolling farm country. In the end we couldn’t follow that route so we rode extra distance with a lot of abrupt, little hills towards the end of a long but scenic day.

Cresting the final hill late in the afternoon we saw Albi in a wide valley with its splendid brick cathedral glowing pink and dominating the town with its Catholic might. We will stay here for a few nights with Couchsurfing hosts Dan and Bettina. They welcomed us warmly into their home adapted from a centuries-old pise farm building. We had an aperitif and cassoulet for dinner before heading into town for Albi’s big night out – the Nuit Pastel.

In our ignorance we didn’t know that the wealth of Albi was originally built on the production of the blue dye pastel – woad in English (Isatis tinctoria). Before the advent of indigo, blue was a difficult and therefore expensive and profitable colour to produce.

It seemed that all Albigeois were in the city for their annual Nuit Pastel. There were choirs singing, circus performance and dancers swinging (from ropes and to music) and steam punk-costumed performers riding fantastical contraptions through the streets. The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum was open late and for free but we preferred to wander the streets with the crowds looking at the floodlit cathedral, bishop’s palace and city ramparts.

The night finished with a dramatic, close-quarters fireworks performance before a massive and appreciative crowd in a place behind the cathedral. It seemed like a risky business with body-mounted fireworks and the odd incendiary breaking free and squittering through the crowd.

We liked the look of our bed when we finally got home.